Amha Belay

Founder & CEO • Algae4All

video recorded via Zoom June 13, 2022

Summary: Dr Amha Belay was Chief Technology Officer for Earthrise Nutritionals in California for 33 years, one of the world’s largest spirulina farms. He describes the challenges and accomplishments in maintaining spirulina cultures and reducing production costs. He forecasts within this decade, economies of scale, automation and extraction of valuable components may reduce costs for spirulina to become a competitive protein source. Now with Algae4All, Dr. Belay is consulting on spirulina production, projects and microfarms in Ethiopia and Africa to make spirulina available to people on the community level.

Welcome Dr. Amha Belay. For over 33 years, you were the Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President of Earthrise Nutritionals, one of the largest spirulina farms. Since 1989, you’ve been responsible for the mass cultivation of spirulina, the research program, quality assurance, government regulations. Recently, Founder and CEO of Algae4All, a consulting firm. You’re a board member of the Algae Biomass Organization and written so many articles. Now teaching online courses on spirulina algae biotechnology.

Q: What do you think were your greatest challenges and accomplishments?

I was able to increase productivity, reduce cost of production. I implemented an integrated system of management. The first challenge I met was contamination with other algae. Many people would say that spirulina ponds because of the high alkalinity and pH would not grow other algae, but there are algae that can be a menace, unless the culture is controlled properly. And what I did there was I applied lessons from nature. That really worked, and we haven’t had any problems since then.

Video clip: Maintaining a healthy culture of spirulina and total product quality control are the number one priorities at Earthrise Farms.

Growing spirulina is very simple. You see this green pond. But then you have to harvest it. You have to dry it. You have to quality control it. To do all this, and then of course you have to sell it. But I’m glad that I have this comprehensive experience about the entire value chain.
The benefits of algae are very well established.

Q: Are you eating spirulina on a regular basis?

Yes. For 25 years now.

Q: What do you think are the most innovative products coming from spirulina?

The first one would be as a protein source in some of these new foods like Impossible burgers and salmon recently. If the cost of production can be reduced half of what it is now, it can go into those foods.

The other types of food will be fresh spirulina. The advantage is that there is not drying cost. To cut the cost of drying as well as increased functionality, I remember Ripley Fox was suggesting this concept of co-drying spirulina with another dry product.

Q: Well, do you think extracting valuable components of spirulina, like phycocyanin the blue color, what would be the opportunities then for low-cost byproduct.

In terms of the biorefinery concept, if we squeeze everything out of spirulina, what remains would be the protein, and that will be a byproduct that could go into foods. Companies like Earthrise, who are now extracting phycocyanin for the pigment market, could find out how that can be used as a protein in functional foods, as well as in animal feed.

In the next 10 years, the cost of production because of economics of scale will come to a level where it can be used as animal feed, as a protein source. Until then it will still grow 5 to 10% in the current market.

But the recent developments in the concept of microfarm, I think is the future of spirulina. It is going to individual homes and also communities. The other thing is that collective farming becomes possible in less advantage countries.

Q: What’s the focus of your current activities in Algae4All?

Teaching companies to realize their dreams. Because there’s been a lot of hype concerning productivity and algal biofuels that didn’t materialize. But a lot of technology has developed to cut cost of production by automation. The future looks really bright.

Most of my time is actually spent on free service to projects in Ethiopia. I want to extend that to Africa.

Q: You have the wonderful picture of an Ethiopian spirulina lake behind you. Tell us a little more about what you see as developments in Ethiopia and all of Africa.

Currently, Ethiopia is a source of spirulina and yet spirulina has never been produced commercially or even in a small scale in Ethiopia. But in Chad it’s produced in a kind of collective farming where mostly ladies go and harvest from the lake.

The extension of that is the micro farm concept. Instead of having these extensive high tech type farms, small scale farming, where the technology is down to the realities of the environment, but collectively working together. And that way the benefits of spirulina can be spread on a community level. And that would be something I want to pursue.

Thank you for joining us. I look forward to seeing you more in the future.

Amha Belay • Algae4All • amhabelay@gmail.com
Produced by Spirulina Source • Robert Henrikson • © 2022.